Canada’s boreal forest primed to be world’s best-protected ecosystem
July 3, 2010
EDMONTON — Canada’s boreal forest is on track to become the world’s best-protected ecosystem, says paper slated to be presented this week at an international conference on conversation issues.
About 4.4 million of the country’s 5.5 million square kilometres of boreal forest are intact, said Steve Kallick, director of the Pew Environment Group’s boreal campaign. Approximately two-thirds of that — or about three million square kilometres — could be protected.
Kallick, along with colleague Gary Stewart, will present a paper Monday at the International Congress for Conservation Biology, being hosted this year in Edmonton. Their report asks whether this country’s boreal forest could become the world’s best-protected ecosystem.
“It’s already more protected, we believe, than any other intact forest ecosystem in the world — more than the Amazon, more than Siberia,” said Kallick. “But we think it’s on track to be way beyond what anybody’s anticipating for those other places.”
Yet Kallick offers a few words of caution.
“This is not all done, by any means. It’s a whole spectrum of things, from completed and approved new national parks, to lands that are subject to the Forest Products Association agreement that we signed a few weeks ago.”
That agreement — which involved 21 member companies of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) and nine major environmental organizations — is expected to lead to more sustainable harvesting practices and protection of habitat in 72 million hectares of forest. New logging and road building will be suspended on nearly 29 million hectares of boreal forest while the signatories develop conservation plans for endangered woodland caribou.
The governments of Ontario and Quebec are also working on major initiatives to protect 50 per cent of their northern forests from industrial development, while the rest would only see sustainable industrial activity.
“If we’re successful here and if all of these positive things track to completion, and hopefully additional governments and industries come up with similar kinds of conservation plans, we are looking at by far the most protected and intact forest landscape in the world remaining so for all time,” Kallick said.
Forest preservation took off in 2003 with the launch of Canada’s Boreal Forest Conservation Framework. It was devised by a wide range of resource companies, conservation groups, First Nations and various governments.
Kallick said they were told by several conservation biologists that if 50 per cent of the forest was strictly protected from development — and development in the rest was done carefully — there would be little ecological impact over time and the ecosystem would remain productive and resilient to change, including climate change.
The fact that they’re almost there is exciting, he said, but first they need to pass a lot of important tests in the next two to three years.
“The Ontario and Quebec planning processes are critical and the (FPAC) agreement is critical. They are the three biggest pieces on the table right now,” he said.
“We also are strongly hoping to see movement forward in Saskatchewan, the Yukon, Manitoba and northern Alberta. And we can’t get the job done without those. That’s the other third of the forest, and they’re the real laggards in this process.”
Stuart Pimm, a world-renowned conservation biologist known for his work on tropical forests, called the impending accomplishment “a globally significant effort.”
Pimm said the land involved would equate to conserving two-thirds of the Amazon.
“Nobody is coming close to the scale of this project. And there are not a lot of what we call wilderness forests left. The Canadian boreal, the Amazon, the Congo, and a few other places, but no more than about half a dozen places around the world have extensive tracts of untouched forests.”
Protecting Canada’s boreal forests is important because the ecosystem stores an enormous amount of carbon, said Pimm, who is attending the Edmonton conference.
“I spend so much time talking about the gloom and doom of global change and species extinction, which is my area of expertise. (But) there really is some good news that countries around the world, governments and the private sector are beginning to realize these issues are important and big, and we should do something about them,” he said.
“It tells us we really can do something to tackle these problems.”
Protecting such large swaths of boreal forest will go a long way to conserving species, he said.
“The eight-second sound bite of conservation is that bigger is better than smaller, connected is better than fragmented, natural is better than managed,” he said.
“And I think those huge principles are hugely important. . . . When you can protect these big areas, you’re protecting the big scale that Mother Nature intended and you take care of a lot of management areas in one fell swoop.”
In some sense, it might be the easiest to make the boreal forest the world’s best protected ecosystem because it’s the least accessed, said Avrim Lazar, FPAC president and CEO. “There’s so much there that no one has messed with that getting on with it is well within reach.”
But he cautioned that industry and environmental groups still have to work with provincial governments to have their plans reach fruition.
“The agreements are very explicit about this, that the provincial government is the landowner,” he said.
It will also be critical to work closely with First Nations.
First Nations have strong legal rights within their territories that have to be taken into account by provinces, said Larry Innes , executive director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative.
And such assertions can help.
“The huge advantage we have in the boreal is that we have communities that have maintained a relationship to their territories for thousands of years and have a pretty good sense of what’s important in terms of maintaining that relationship,” Innes said.
“If we can give their values and their voices space, then I think we will, as a country, succeed in becoming one of the best conserved and best managed parts of the planet.”
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